When we think of humility, we do not think of it as a skill. I have become increasingly convinced that our society undervalues humility as something desirable, something admirable, and something to look for when selecting leadership material.
I have made plenty of mistakes in my life. I am not afraid to admit this. I think that we all have. At least, those among us who have humility anyways would. Most of us probably wish that there was a “rewind” button in real life. I would hope that there is a selection bias amongst the readers of my website who do.
Back in 2014, Thomas Friedman interviewed the Laszlo Bock, the Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google. The interview was in some ways similar to a prior interview that Bock made for the New York Times in 2013. I love that he put the idea of “learning ability” being the most important, ahead of raw skills, IQ, and GPA. Anyways, Bock noted that GPA from university actually proved to be a very poor predictor of success on the job. There was no correlation between GPA and success. More surprisingly, there was also little correlation between the various puzzles that Google famously gave and success as well. It was about what potential a candidate had to develop into, not necessarily the experiences and technical skills that said employee had on hand, a flaw that I believe many employers make when hiring. Too many overvalue experience over potential.
However, another very important trait (and I would argue skill) that Bock noted was humility. The ability to recognize that you are wrong, and that perhaps others have better ideas. That is something that a surprisingly few amount of people have. Bock in the interview noted that the very intelligent in particular have the tendency to make the Fundamental Attribution Error, due to the fact that they have seldom, if ever failed at anything they do. Bock emphasizes the concept of intellectual humility, because that enables people to learn and when there are new facts, they change their minds.
This interview reminds me of a quote attributed to the famous economist John Maynard Keynes:
“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?
– Attributed to John Maynard Keynes
There is some dispute online to whether or not Keynes actually said that quote, but in the context of this article, let’s focus on the message. When the facts change, he changes his mind. I would argue that even if this quote was not something that Keynes actually said, he did a very good job as an economist of living up to this quote.
From my experiences, a shockingly few percentage of people have the ability to change their mind in the face of facts. Politics may be the worst demonstration of this, but it happens elsewhere in life as well. That brings me to the idea of intellectual humility, which is a state of being in search of truth. A person who has this will always argue in favour of what conclusion that they think that the facts support and where the facts are incorrect, they will change their views, acknowledging that their old view was incorrect. This I would argue is the only real way to aspire to be better than a person has previously been. Perhaps that is another way of saying open-mindedness.
The other definition of humility not discussed in the interview but implied I would stress is also of very high importance importance. The traditional way humility is thought of are the abilities to recognize one’s own limitations, remain modest in the face of success, acknowledge where others have done very well, and of course, to admit one’s own mistakes. It too is incredibly important. Our society seems to value excessively aggression, assertiveness, and extroversion to an extent that it undermines humility, even though we are told that few people enjoy a “show off”. We are too attracted to confidence, at times, even where that is not justified. In reality, it is often a demonstration of the Dunning Kruger effect at times.
Time permitting, I intend to read Bock’s book Work Rules, which discusses Google’s hiring practices in greater detail. At times, I think the media tends to attribute superhuman abilities to Google, which as the interviews with Bock show that it is often not the case. Perhaps that is in part because Bock has the humility to admit this. Whether or not Google actually lives up to the ideals that Bock makes, I do not know. I think that there is always a gap between an organization’s ideals and the realities, but perhaps Google does better than most in this regard. Perhaps it is one reason for its relative success.
I will be expanding on my ideas of humility at a later post and discussing the concept of ownership in a later post. In fact, after thinking about this, I will be making several posts about this in the future. Until next time.